Corrine Colarusso calls the works in her “Shaggy Land” exhibition at Sandler Hudson Gallery “ecstatic paintings.” (They’re on view through April 2.) Ostensibly representations of swamps and marshlands, they may actually represent no less than the revivification of a genre of visionary landscape painting generally considered to have died out with David Jones, Winifred Nicholson and the last of the post-World War British Romantics. (Below: “Shaggy Land.”)
Revivals of it have usually been tinged with a distancing irony, as if to say, “We don’t really mean this.” What Colarusso means, though, isn’t anything like an innocent Romanticism. Creating these paintings of imaginary vistas and tangles of reeds and flowers, which depict what she terms “not a comfortable nature but a fugitive one,” she asked herself such discomfitingly honest questions as, “Can an artist paint a sunrise in 2011?”
The answer, clearly, is yes, and these paintings demonstrate anew what paint can do that photography and video cannot. These are landscapes that could exist only as vigorously layered paint on canvas; if they were created as manipulated photographs or from-scratch textureless digital facsimiles, they would almost certainly collapse into sentiment.
Executed in the full range of non-literal representation that paint affords, they become vehicles for psychological exploration of our own emotional depths. In fact, these paintings have caused a considerable emotional rush in viewers not ordinarily inclined to disappear into a landscape. There are huge realms of neurological research and speculation about human biology that may be at play here.
What are certain are the formalist depths at work. Foregrounds defeat our expectations in their combination of different painting styles. Midgrounds dissolve into backgrounds in ways that keep the eye busy. Light is rendered in ways that seem right to recollection without replicating any night, dawn, dusk or midday that a camera has captured. The titles alone would suggest this: “Radiant Night,” “Strings, Charms and Droplets,” “Flowers That Speak, Sunrise,” “Shadows and Moons” and “Dark Engine,” to cite only a few.
“Dark Engine” (above) is worth singling out for its particular combination of foreground flowers rendered with dramatic contrasts in brushwork (not to mention botanical exactitude) and adjacent implicit reflections in water that combine elements of action painting with juxtapositions of color that are more restrained but still energetic.
The artist, who describes her project as “the re-enchantment of painting,” said this about “Dark Engine”: “The night is a dark engine. The mind is a dark engine. When you combine them it can create the loop that leads to a dark interior space.”
It does. Why it does so, and why it will inevitably not do so for every type and condition of viewer no matter how deftly the paint is handled, is a subject to be discussed elsewhere. But Colarusso has given us the materials to start the conversation.